Songs In The Key Of… St. Cloud, Minnesota
Paul Spring of Brooklyn-based folk/soul trio Holy Hive takes us on a musical deep dive into his Minnesota home town
My parents and nine siblings relocated our home base to St. Cloud, MN in August of 1999 (just before Y2K). It was a tough year of transition for me as a fifth-grader. Leaving our small Mississippi river town of Winona, MN and moving into a new house in a ‘big river-city’ of 68,000 people.
Luckily, this was also the year I discovered the incredible frequency of a radio station in St. Cloud called Kool 108. It played all the best songs from the 50s and 60s, as well as highlighting Minnesota artists from music history. Shortly after, my parents got me a saxophone and my older sister gave me my first guitar.
We quickly learned that St. Cloud had a bustling music scene, and we lived only a 15-minute walk from the downtown hub where all concerts happened. Soon we were attending a lot of summer outdoor concerts, or performances at the local college. In these gatherings, and in meeting musician leaders in the scene, I learned about the history of this strange granite mining town which also sat on the northern banks of the Mississippi.
I’m structuring this playlist with the first six songs being from the tradition of St. Cloud music, and the second four songs being from peers and friends who inspired us along the way. Organizing a playlist by history instead of style and mood doesn’t make for the smoothest listening experience, but I hope everyone enjoys these songs and my explanations of them. As Mr. Nelson [Prince] of Minneapolis once said, “I was dreaming when I wrote this, so sue me if I go too fast.”
Tradition & Leaders
MEN’S FANCY CROW HOP BY LITTLE OTTER
Little Otter is from the nearest Native community to St. Cloud, the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe. Native peoples are often left out of the conversation when it comes to music history. That needs to change. Musicologists believe that the four-on-the-floor rhythm and lyrical pentatonic chanting of Native American music was essential to the development of many forms of American music. When it was mixed with the polyrhythmic elements of African music, it became our now universal backbeat.
Link Wray invented electric guitar distortion with his song, “Rumble,” and is considered by many to be the father of rock and roll. Listening to Little Otter, and other traditional native bands who carry this music forward, is a real privilege for any lover of music. I appreciate their work immensely, and appreciate them and bands like them performing regular rain, sun, and powwow dances which allowed the wasi’chu (white) community to be in attendance.
DOOYO BY DUR DUR BAND
In the early 1990s, the Somali Civil War tore apart the country of Somalia and sent many of its residents abroad in exile. One of the largest re-settlements of Somali people is in my hometown of St. Cloud. In my town of 68,000, it is estimated that we have between 6,000 – 13,000 Somalis. I grew up with them as neighbours and classmates, and would hear their music playing from parks, soccer fields, and cars.
In college, I was delighted to find that they procured an AM radio station frequency in town to play their traditional and contemporary Somali music. Many nights driving home I would listen to this station and jam and record voice memos of songs I heard.
One night I sent one to my sister Joan, who had befriended someone at the station in her allyship with their efforts to start a mosque in town. Another night I had learned about the new Shazam app, and used that to find this gem of a song. The Dur Dur band was disbanded in the early 90s on accusations that their music was blasphemy. They scattered around the world to London, Ohio, Minneapolis, and Italy.
In 2014, they reunited in Minneapolis for a week-long residency. In the following years, other exiled Somali musicians came through to St. Cloud to perform, and I also learned of some local singers and instrumentalists in town. Unfortunately, those local artists do not have music on Spotify, only SoundCloud and Bandcamp. But I am encouraging them to distribute digitally and will post that St. Cloud Somali music ASAP.
STAR/SNOWY PATH BY RING OF KERRY
Growing up in my house, Irish music played on our stereo almost daily. Especially after our chain-smoking and hilarious Irish cousins visited town in 6th grade, and even more so after 8th grade when my father took six of my siblings along on a study abroad trip to Galway which he and my mother led.
In St. Cloud, there is a small but loud Irish community, even though most of town is Norwegian Lutheran and German Catholic. When we moved there when I was 10, my father quickly found the best Irish band in town due to some of their members playing in my church. One of those members, Paul Imholte, is an incredible hammer dulcimer player who you hear at the beginning of this track. I attended many Ring of Kerry concerts, and even got to learn some traditional songs directly from their member Paul Cotton. My favourite thing he taught me was a traditional song called Black Velvet Band, but this instrumental tune, Star/Snowy Path, is a close second.
TAKE GOOD CARE OF MY BABY BY BOBBY VEE
In 2013, Bob Dylan called Bobby Vee, “the most meaningful person I have ever been on stage with.” I could not agree more. I whole-heartedly look up to the recently departed Mr. Vee. He has created a blueprint for me and every member of my community of what it truly means to bring music to a small town and support a local music scene. Instead of continuing to tour and live out life on the road, he started a family and brought famous musicians to St. Cloud. He was a beautiful human being, and a truly generous soul.
Vee was a hit songwriter and performer in the late 50s and early 60s. He got his start the day the music died; The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens were on a flight to Fargo, ND to play a show when their small plane crashed in a cornfield in Iowa. Since the show must go on, a local teenage songwriter named Bobby Veline, who knew all of Holly’s songs by heart, was asked to perform in his stead. Thus Bobby Vee was born. When a young Robert Zimmerman wanted to get into the music industry at age 18, his first gig was playing piano in Bobby Vee’s band. At a 2013 live show in Minneapolis, Dylan played a Bobby Vee song and thanked him from the stage for giving him his start.
Bobby Vee settled on a lake house just outside of St. Cloud and started a family. He and his sons started the first recording studio in the area called Rockhouse Productions. It is built in an old bank that legend says Jesse James once robbed. My band in high school, Mister, recorded our first two records there.
Bobby worked his whole adult life to sponsor the music scene in town. Every year he hosted two events in which he brought in old friends to perform. Both events raise money for the local high school and church community. As a teenager I got to see Little Richard, Ricky Nelson, Herman’s Hermits, The Spinners, The Crickets, members of the Supremes, and countless more in a small high school gymnasium and church parking lot.
My community is so grateful for Mr. Vee and his family. His sons Jeff and Tommy gave me support as a musician; they had us play at events and open up for our heroes, and they recorded our albums for no cost to us thanks to the generosity of their friend and our local patron Mark Reum. I’m still grateful to Mark all these years later, for believing in a couple of teenagers and connecting us to the Vee family. As a young man, these people were music legends to me and seemed unapproachable. Mark made that introduction happen.
WALLS OF RED WING BY BOB DYLAN
Bob Dylan is from Hibbing, MN [his family moved there when he was six] which is an iron mining town in the far, far northern part of the state. Though he’s cut from a colder micro-climate, Bob still has some St. Cloud connections and a lot of love for Minnesota. He got his start playing keys in Bobby Vee’s band, though was kicked out because according to Bobby he could only play triads with one hand at that point.
I’m a big fan of Dylan’s work before he went electric. His acoustic guitar playing and reworkings of Irish and Appalachian folk melodies. This song mentions my hometown by way of the St. Cloud penitentiary. It is a crazy building right on the banks of the Mississippi and looks like a giant haunted castle that could be the set of a Stephen King Hulu series. It’s also where most Midwestern license plates were made for a long time for cents on the hour in wages, due to the modern-day slavery of minorities and poor whites that our prison-industrial complex allows. Bob knew back then that prisons were bad business, and it’s an unfortunate landmark on my St. Cloud skyline.
GHOST BY INDIGO GIRLS
In my home growing up, my sisters were always listening to Indigo Girls. My wife Sophia’s family did the same. Indigo Girls member Emily Saliers lived in St. Cloud in high school and her father taught briefly at St. John’s University, the same place that my parents taught and that my wife and I went to high school. My sister audited theology classes with Emily’s father, and was amazed at his kindness and wisdom. Apparently, he had a wife with severe Alzheimer’s, and never left her side even during the workday, My sister would see them in the cafeteria together, and he treated her with utmost love and respect.
In addition to their St. Cloud connection, Indigo Girls created a nonprofit called “Honor the Earth” with Winona Laduke on the White Earth Reservation just a few hours north of our town. Winona was one of the water protectors and leaders at the Standing Rock protests. We in St. Cloud are very appreciative of The Indigo Girls music and activism, and for helping to sponsor such a cause.
SUGAR BUGS BY MAPLE & BEECH
In addition to the older musicians who I respected in my community, there were also peers closer to my age who I looked up to. Tyler Tholl and Pete Johnson were two years older than me and started their first band together in the eighth grade. I was a sixth-grader who really looked up to them. They showed me that it was possible for a young person to write songs and play shows in the community.
Tyler and Pete and their friends have led many projects together over the years, but their most recent is called Maple & Beech. This is my favourite song by their latest project, but I recommend checking out all of their albums.
HONEST EYES BY MISTER
I had a couple of bands in high school including, when I was 15, an accordion and guitar duo project with my friend Sam Phipps called Spontaneous Combustion. When Sam studied abroad in Austria, I met Dylan Mcfarling and Cooper Lund and we started a band we called Mister. We played every month at a local coffee shop and started writing songs collaboratively.
Dylan Mcfarling was and is the best guitarist I have ever known, dude can play anything and has phrasing and licks that still play in my head to this day. On top of that, he was writing songs at age 17 that I still can’t even imagine writing. This is one of them. I remember the exact practice that Dylan brought in Honest Eyes and Cooper and I added our minimal parts. In my honest opinion, it is a perfect song. Dylan is still making music today under his own name, and continues to get better at guitar. He has taught me and so many how to write a serious piece of music. He also plays Bach and Tarrega like a Spaniard that walked out of a time machine.
GOLDENHEART BY CARRIE SCHNEIDER
Carrie went to the same high school as Tyler and Pete [see Sugar Bugs], and I found her music through them. She is an incredible songwriter and guitarist who writes beautiful alt-country which reminds me of Lucinda Williams and Neko Case. After living her whole life in St. Cloud and performing regularly she relocated to Nashville to pursue her country music dreams. Without Carrie, we would not have as organized of a local scene as we have now. Love her and appreciate her.
WE’RE NOT BREAKING UP BY FRED SAVAGE AND THE UNBEATABLES
This is another local group that was both ambitious and unbelievably fun when I was in middle and high school. They were a 10-piece ska band and were soon playing the Warped Tour [a large rock tour which travelled the U.S.] in the early 2000s. Pete and Tyler were members for a bit, but local legends Bubba Hollenhorst, Mitch Johnson and Tom Kain were the main songwriters in the group.
We all looked up to them. I worked with Tom’s brother Ted at the local Dairy Queen and we would sing this song from time to time. I love the melody and arrangement, and how it brings me back to biking around town on late night sneak outs and swimming to islands in the Mississippi River with friends.
SOPHIA’S PART BY HOLY HIVE
I met my partner Sophia in high school, she grew up on a farm outside the neighbouring town of St. Joseph, MN. Homer Steinweiss [Holy Hive drummer]’s partner Catherine also grew up on this farm and is Sophia’s cousin. I have written over 50 songs about Sophia since I met her at age 16. Now I’m 30, and looking back at all the songs I wrote as a solo artist and as a member of other bands I think this one is my favourite. I mostly think this because Sophia and I wrote it together.
Sophia made the piano part, and I wrote a guitar line and vocal melody over the top. I brought it to Holy Hive and Joe and Homer added great bass and drums. Super simple and organic process, and on top of it being my favourite song about Sophia, it’s my favourite Holy Hive song thus far. After writing this article, I wanna get back to St. Cloud and make some more music with the great musicians there. Homer is down.